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Iran: Little Said About Safety Of Nuclear Program

Bushehr nuclear power plant (file photo) By Fatemeh Aman and Bill Samii

As the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) 35-member board of governors contemplates the Iranian nuclear program this week, the United States -- and reportedly, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom -- are calling for Iran's referral to the UN Security Council.

Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad threatened in a 19 September interview with Iranian state television that Tehran would take unspecific actions should the case go to the Security Council. In a 17 September interview with "Time," Ahmadinejad hinted at denial of access to international nuclear inspectors or the reduction of oil supplies.

While the international community considers issues such as the extent of Iran's cooperation with the IAEA and the possibility that the country is trying to develop nuclear weapons, the safety of the Iranian nuclear program has gotten less notice. Any accidents at the nuclear reactor being built in Bushehr in southwestern Iran could have an international impact, and the issue therefore deserves international attention.

Regional Concerns

IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei said in his opening remarks at a 6-7 September conference in Vienna marking the nuclear disaster in Chornobyl: "The first lesson that emerged from Chernobyl was the direct relevance of international cooperation to nuclear safety. The accident revealed a sharp disparity in nuclear design and operational safety standards. It also made clear that nuclear and radiological risks transcend national borders -- that 'an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere'" (for the full text, see

At least two of Iran's neighbors -- Kuwait and Saudi Arabia -- have already expressed their concerns about safety issues. When Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani, who was secretary of the Supreme National Security Council at the time, visited Kuwait and other Persian Gulf states in June it was to assuage these countries' fears, "Sharq" reported on 7 June.
"Kuwait's or Saudi's concern over the safety of the Bushehr nuclear plant is understandable, because the Russians don't have such a stellar track record and reputation in nuclear safety around the world." professor Meshkati

Rohani said at the time, "I also made clear to our Kuwaiti brethren that Iran's peaceful nuclear programs would be fully run under the close supervision of the [IAEA], and therefore, they should not be the source of any fear for the regional, or international circles," the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported on 7 June.

Iran awarded the Bushehr safety contract -- worth some $20 million -- to the Bezopasnost (Safety) enterprise of Rostekhnadzor, Russia's Federal Service for Environmental, Technological, and Nuclear Oversight, "Sharq" reported on 19 April.

"Kuwait's or Saudi's concern over the safety of the Bushehr nuclear plant is understandable, because the Russians don't have such a stellar track record and reputation in nuclear safety around the world," Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of civil/environmental engineering and industrial and systems engineering at the University of Southern California and an international nuclear safety expert, told Radio Farda. "We -- Iranians -- are also aware of these facts, and that's why we should try to get other qualified safety-related service and technology provider companies from Europe and the United States to participate in Bushehr." Meshkati told Radio Farda that this is the only logical way Iran can convince its neighbors that the Bushehr facility is as safe as a Western one.

Meshkati stressed that experts working at Iran's Atomic Energy Organization are competent, but nuclear power plant safety is complex and multifaceted. Therefore, he said, several companies with expertise and knowledge in different areas should complement each other. "How can they put all their eggs in one basket?" Meshkati asked. "There is no single company that possesses all that needed expertise in-house."

Meshkati asked how an individual Russian company with an unknown history can execute such a big job, adding that independent Western firms should participate in the project so the different companies can cross-check each other. "However, because of sanctions, Iran does not have access to the Western companies that could take care of Bushehr's safety," he said.

The safety issue is so serious, Meshkati said, that it should be kept distinct from political considerations. He said Iran should initiate a parallel line of negotiation for obtaining nuclear-safety-related services and technologies from the West.

Meshkati also expressed concern about the safety culture in general. He noted that culture and an emphasis on secrecy were factors that contributed to the disasters at Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979 and at Chornobyl in the Soviet Union in 1986.

The IAEA And Bushehr

Ken Brockman, IAEA director of nuclear safety and nuclear installation, seems more confident about safety at Bushehr. He told Radio Farda that the Iranians are very involved with their Russian counterparts. He said they have a "long-term vision" of achieving independence in safety. Brockman said he has visited Bushehr "many times" and has seen the Iranian dedication to quality control. He stressed that Iran has the primary responsibility for safety and the Russians are there to provide support in that area.

Brockman went on to explain that the IAEA is involved with the Bushehr project. "We have an active program under technical cooperation and initiative with Iran working both with the operators and with the regulatory body there. There have been numerous peer-review missions." Brockman said experts from other countries come to Bushehr and to the Iranian regulatory agency to ensure that activities there benefit from global expertise. Brockman said the situation at Bushehr is satisfactory. "From my tour there, visiting the plant, I would say I am very comfortable with the commitment that Iran has in that regard recognizing their responsibilities."

For news and analysis of Iran's nuclear program, see RFE/RL's "Iran's Nuclear Program" microsite.